This is what leadership looks like on race and racism in universities

Three months on from the Black Lives Matter protests, Alisha Lobo argues that the sector needs to ask serious questions about why progress feels so slow.

The Black Lives Matter movement has forced all of us to reflect on the ways in which racial inequality permeates throughout a myriad of different contexts, and higher education has been no exception.

Many universities made public commitments in the wake of the protests and were met with tremendous backlash online. Their statements were at odds with the experiences of many students, alumni, the long list of demands from activists, and the overwhelming data received by institutions.

The Black attainment gap is currently 28% nationally. Out of the 19,000 professors in the UK, only 25 of them are Black women. Whilst there has been a lot of emphasis and progress has been made on addressing sexual violence on campuses, work still remains to improve reporting mechanisms and support for students reporting racism.

So three months on from the protests, the sector needs to ask serious questions about why, despite the clear and loud commitments to tackling these issues, progress on the ground feels so slow.

Why are we here?

Having had the opportunity to interact with different members of senior management from different institutions, it’s clear that discussions about equality and diversity are often stilted, it can become awkward very quickly. The conversation very rarely goes beyond the black awarding gap – mainly because of the Access and Participation Plan.

The discussion around decolonising is present but lacks substance around its measurement, its application to STEM subjects and its ability to go beyond reviewing reading lists. Some cite having mentorship programs and the representation at the top, but often this is stilted again with excuses around the pipeline issue or not enough resource.

There appears to be a skills gap in understanding equality and diversity issues at senior levels – an understanding of how to join the everyday decision making with equality and diversity. The need for a comprehensive understanding about equality and diversity issues has never been a criterion for promotion or an expectation of management till fairly recently and that begins to explain why action has been slow.

With the lack of diverse representation, senior management are not able to draw on their own personal experience either. Understanding of equality and diversity and its implementation into management, I would argue, is a disjuncture between the academic study of these concepts.

If this becomes an institutional priority, senior managers at the top of their game can’t really afford to be asking basic questions about these issues. On the other hand, when senior managers do find the courage to ask those basic questions, the snappy “educate yourself!” may encourage continued avoidance of seeking to find that information, particularly in the midst of other competing priorities. (To be clear, I do think there is responsibility and initiative shown by management to do their own work here)

Mind the gap

Addressing this skills gap requires a pragmatic yet sensitive approach. Educating people to understand their own prejudices and the complexities of race requires individuals to be met at their level of understanding (wherever that may be) and senior leaders are no exception.

The learning required and mindset shift are not going to occur with unconscious bias training. Whether it’s good intentions but not wanting to say the wrong thing, apprehension and nervousness when this issue comes up – an approach of one to one discussions about how change can be made that addresses both the strategic and the minutiae, allows for issues to be teased out and unpacked sensitively.

There is no shame in not knowing but there needs to be some humility in recognizing shortcomings and a focus on wider personal development on that level. Changing reading lists only go far in addressing this issue, the scope needs to be larger of how this impacts every facet of the organisations with the decisions that are taken, it is this, in my opinion is where the real change happens.

Beginning with discussions in a confidential and safe place is essential. Sharing experiences and where they are coming from, understanding confusing terminology, overcoming privilege, and the recognition that most decisions affect an institutions ability to create equitable change is essential.

At the end of a crash course in educating, there should be a clear articulation of how to effectively use their platforms and privilege to take action. This is not just meeting the long held demands of activists, but a change in the approach and mind set when decisions are made.

Risky business

I have thoroughly enjoyed the one-off conversations that I have had, where frank, and dare I say, vulnerable questions have been asked that I have done my best to answer. When I have probed further with my questions, I have had quite frank admissions of apprehension and nervousness, instead of bold and visionary leadership. My only hope that there is more courage to ask those questions and engage.

It will require leaders to step out and plunge in, engaging with willingness, reflection and understanding and most importantly at the end of it, to step out and invest in their respective underrepresented communities on campus. This political moment presents a slowly closing window of opportunity to discuss inequality in the sector like never before.

Students are returning directly into Black History Month. They are angrier than ever before with more time on their hands to debate, discuss, and articulate their demands to institutions. We will never be the same after Covid, but we have the chance to reimagine our institutions for the better. My only hope is we make the most of it.

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